For victims and survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner violence, sometimes coming forward to report it to police can be the hardest thing they can do.
It takes great courage and a strong support network in order to speak up.
It’s why the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) has made strategic investments to better-support victims and survivors.
In 2021, the OPS hired a new senior advisor for Violence Against Women (VAW). Melanie Winwood works closely with community partners and frontline agencies to help bridge the gap and identify areas where the Service can improve in providing support to those most in need.
“In the past, our partners would comment about safety planning not being done or resources not provided when it’s very possible it was provided to the individual but wasn’t documented,” said Winwood. “It was important that we developed a two-pronged approach that not only increased education to our officers, but to our partners as well.”
It was important that we developed a two-pronged approach that not only increased education to our officers, but to our partners as well.
- Melanie Winwood
Acting Inspector Nicole St. John worked with Winwood to identify gaps in service, and to enhance the training of responding officers. They also introduced a designated VAW liaison officer, Inspector Isabelle Lemieux, who works within police platoons to assist with information sharing and the proper frontline investigation processes of any such files.
“The Intimate Partner Violence Unit (IPVU) attended patrol training days and added more information and tools to the Domestic Violence course as well,” said A/Inspector St. John. “Most of the officers we spoke with on patrol didn’t even know about the review tables.”
A/Inspector St. John is referring to the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault review tables, which were introduced in 2017 and adapted from the well-known Philadelphia model where external partners review unfounded files. Every year the OPS provides these advocates with files that did not lead to a charge to determine if they were correctly processed.
Having a report not result in charges being laid can be devastating to the victim or survivor, despite best efforts by police. And gaps in communication between police and frontline agencies can sometimes conflate the issue.
“In the first few years, there were often 30 or 40 files that were identified by the advocates that they wanted to examine more closely,” said Investigations Superintendent Heather Lachine. “After last week’s review of over 200 intimate partner violence cases, they requested to take a closer look at only five. That means we are making progress.”
This progress has happened, thanks largely to the work done by Supt. Lachine, A/Insp. St. John, and Ms. Winwood. The three have made it a point to provide access to information to the review table advocates, including introducing them to OPS investigators so they could put a name to a file. Meetings were scheduled on a regular basis to create better channels of communication, and the team worked to help the advocates understand court processes that sometimes determined some reports as unfounded or unable to lay charges.
Throughout it all, our partners have played an important role in not only advocating for the victims and survivors, but helping to build a better understanding of how the OPS can support those most in need. Their efforts to increase communication and share knowledge have helped the Service identify gaps and make important changes.
“It’s great because I think there’s understanding that both sides have the same intentions; we ultimately want to help those victims or survivors and get them the proper resources so that they feel safe,” said A/Insp. St. John.
It’s great because I think there’s understanding that both sides have the same intentions; we ultimately want to help those victims or survivors and get them the proper resources so that they feel safe.
- A/Inspector Nicole St. John
“Some of the feedback I’m hearing from our partners is that they have noticed the files are more complete, which helps them to know that certain things have been done,” said Winwood. “Ottawa shelter workers have recently told me they’ve noticed an improved and more sensitive response from our frontline officers.”
It’s a step in the right direction, but there is still more work to do.
“We are working with our partners to identify areas where we can still improve,” said A/Insp. St. John. “It’s important that the advocates get to know us, and that we get to know them so that we can work effectively together; they have access to support resources that we do not have. Because ultimately, it’s about building a relationship with the common goal of helping those most in need.”
“I appreciate that I am able to connect with both OPS members and external VAW agencies. I think over time it’s increased an understanding of my role and trust in the fact that I am here to support both sectors,” said Winwood. “I feel like both sides are communicating better and that enhances transparency, which is huge for me.”